Firm and Decisive, Fair and Approachable: Insights from NCDAC's Women Wardens

Women lead from the top at fourteen NCDAC correctional facilities. They share their advice on staying confident, embracing challenges, and keeping your eye on what matters most.

Author: Catherine Jarboe

In a field that was once male-dominated, women have reshaped the landscape of corrections in North Carolina. Today, half of the nearly 14,000 NC Department of Adult Correction (NCDAC) staff are women. At NCDAC’s 56 active institutions (54 prisons and two Confinement in Response to Violation centers) 14 women serve in the top spot, as warden or director.

  • Patricia Blackburn, Lincoln Correctional Center
  • Lucketchia Boston, Tyrell Prison Work Farm
  • Amanda Cobb, Orange Correctional Center
  • Wendy Hardy, Roanoke River Correctional Institution
  • Shanticia Hawkins, Warren Correctional Institution
  • Cathy Judge, Harnett Correctional Institution
  • Talena Lee, Nash Correctional Institution
  • Mary Locklear, Lumberton Correctional Institution
  • Pamela Locklear, Robeson Confinement in Response to Violation Center
  • Miranda Richardson, Anson Correctional Institution
  • Pazavar Priest, Columbus Correctional Institution
  • Sheila Sauls, Green Correctional Institution
  • April Shoup, Western Correctional Institution
  • Nicole Spruell, Richmond Correctional Institution

Take Initiative, Be Confident and Open-minded

How can others achieve this level? All these leaders acknowledge the trailblazers and mentors before them and recognize the chance they have now to make an impact and to mentor others. Many say the keys to their success lie in the capacity to embraced challenges, take initiative, and stay open-minded and honest.

“As a woman in a leadership role, you have to be strong and confident in yourself and your abilities to lead,” says Warden Shanticia Hawkins. “Women are natural communicators and problem solvers. Being assertive and adaptable to situations are qualities that have helped me to be successful in my many leadership roles. I've also been fortunate to have great mentors in my life who have helped guide me along the way.”

As Warden Lucketchia Boston explains, differing experiences and talents helps drive NCDAC’s inclusive culture.

“More voices, different viewpoints, and life experiences support innovation and problem-solving,” she says. “Having women in corrections in leadership roles creates a culture of equality and inclusion – including equal opportunities for career advancement.”

The group includes some who have risen through the ranks as correctional officers (CO) or probation/parole officers, and some who started out as case managers, program managers, or other administrative roles. Warden Wendy Hardy credits her CO background – and her deep understanding of daily CO life  – as a key reason for the culture of collaborative problem-solving at Roanoke River Correctional Institution. 

“I remember what it was like to be a correctional officer so I can relate to them in that capacity. I listen to our COs, I value their ideas and I try to incorporate their ideas when we are making changes and   improvements to the facility,” says Warden Hardy.

Focus on What Matters Most

Like Warden Hardy, Warden Mary Locklear emphasizes that listening carefully and an open-minded approach are keys to success and adds that another key is connecting with community partners. At Lumberton Correctional Institution, she has created an environment where staff and offenders “feel heard and respected” and emphasizes reentry programs as the focus of all their efforts. 

“We know that reentry starts on the day you enter prison. We have several programs designed to help offenders prepare to reenter the community. Our staff is committed to helping them be successful, and our community partners are essential,” explains Locklear.

All rely on a firm and decisive manner, but are also approachable. Many say their career choices have been rooted in a solid belief in the power of individuals to grow and change.

Explains Warden Amanda Cobb, “I am firm and fair, consistent, and approachable. As women, we are born to lead. Naturally, we have unique strengths -  that comes along with a ‘natural spirit’ to provide, guidance, support, and encouragement. We care about the outcome of others.”

Warden Talena Lee at Nash Correctional Institution understands that offender programs, such as the NC Field Minister Program and educational programs such as HiSET (where her facility leads in the NCDAC HiSet Challenge) are powerful catalysts for change.

“Choosing to work in a prison means you are committed to the reentry and rehabilitation of our offender population.  You have to be, knowing that about 90% of our active population has a release date,” explains Warden Lee.  “Eight years into my career I received my first phone call from a previously incarcerated offender. He just wanted to say, ‘thank you’, and tell me how much his life had changed and how well he was doing.  After hanging up the phone, an overwhelming sense of gratitude filled me. I was so grateful to have a career where I can see change in people who are often considered outcasts.”

Some have prioritized a focus on improving family relationships, helping offenders in their facilities strengthen bonds with their children. When asked to share an initiative that stands out, Warden Blackburn explains her work with one of NCDAC’s community partners, Our Children’s Place of Coastal Horizons Center, to enhance parent-child visitations at Lincoln Correctional Center. She said she understands that  “children are not responsible for the actions of their parents, yet they may suffer” because of those actions.

"Children can't help that their dads are in prison. It should not have the negative impact it often has on them. We have made it a priority to see that visitation time with dad is fun and memorable. Give them a different story to tell at school. Instead of ‘I went to the prison to see dad this weekend,’ it can be,’ I played hungry hippos with my dad this weekend,’ or ‘dad read me this book,’ or ‘dad taught me how to play Go Fish.’  It gives them a feeling of pride when talking about dad.”   

As wardens, all rely on case managers, program coordinators, medical and behavioral healthcare providers, administrators, social workers, and many other specialized staff, who coordinate accredited programs to address trauma, addiction, and mental health issues that often contributed to choices offenders have made in the past. Offering high-quality programs and ensuring offenders receive the tailored support they need for successful reentry a priority for Director Pamela Locklear.

“I am most passionate about making positive change,” Director Locklear explains. “When offenders are given the tools necessary to make positive changes through education and life skill programs, they can return to their communities as better and stronger citizens.”

While progress has been made, there is still work being done. NCDAC actively promotes diversity and inclusion, providing internships, leadership training, and programs to foster the professional growth of women aspiring to leadership roles.

As more women succeed in the role of warden, everyone wins, explains Warden Lee.

“Women aren’t’ afraid to step up and take the initiative when they see a need,” says Warden Lee. “Our system is always evolving and there’s a need for women leaders. We are embracing the challenges head on.”